A federal jury on Tuesday found three of the nation's biggest pharmacy chains, CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, liable for helping to fuel the U.S. opioid crisis — a decision that's expected to have legal repercussions as thousands of similar lawsuits move forward in courts across the country.
Jurors concluded that the pharmacies contributed to a so-called public nuisance in Lake and Trumbull counties in Ohio by selling and dispensing huge quantities of prescription pain pills.
Some of those medications initially purchased legally wound up being sold on the black market.
Tuesday's verdict is expected to resonate nationally, as the three chains face thousands of similar lawsuits filed by U.S. communities grappling with the opioid crisis.
A separate legal proceeding will now take place to determine how much the companies will have to pay to help remedy the crisis, with damages likely to run into the billions of dollars.
In a statement, attorneys for the Ohio counties that filed this federal lawsuit described the jury's decision as a "milestone victory" in the effort to hold companies accountable for an addiction crisis that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.
"For decades, pharmacy chains have watched as the pills flowing out of their doors cause harm and failed to take action as required by federal law," the attorneys said.
Executives for the pharmacy chains have long maintained they did nothing wrong and dispensed pills only after prescriptions had been written by licensed health care providers.
In a statement sent to NPR, a Walmart spokesman blasted the verdict and criticized the way the trial was handled by Judge Dan Polster, who has managed much of the federal opioid litigation now underway in the U.S.
"We will appeal this flawed verdict, which is a reflection of a trial that was engineered to favor the plaintiffs' attorneys and was riddled with remarkable legal and factual mistakes," said Walmart's statement.
A spokesperson for CVS also promised an appeal in a statement sent to NPR.
"We strongly disagree with the decision," the statement said. "Pharmacists fill legal prescriptions written by DEA-licensed doctors who prescribe legal, FDA-approved substances to treat actual patients in need."
In a separate statement to NPR from Walgreens, a spokesperson described the verdict as disappointing. "The facts and the law do not support the verdict. We believe the trial court committed significant legal errors in allowing the case to go before a jury," it said.
This federal verdict comes at a time when efforts in state courts to hold corporations accountable for the opioid crisis have hit major legal roadblocks.
This month, Oklahoma's Supreme Court overturned a judgment against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson worth roughly $460 million that was based on the same "public nuisance" legal argument.
A state judge in California also declined to hold drug companies accountable for any role in spurring the opioid crisis in communities in that state.
Opioid lawsuits continue to move forward in other venues around the U.S., including in New York and Washington state.